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‘WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE’S PICTURE?’

In the second main chapter of Barna and Viola’s book Pagan Christianity, we are given a brief history of some forms and orders of worship, with perhaps a special emphasis on low church Protestant worship. Missing is a discussion of Catholic worship, various forms of Orthodox worship and Anglican worship. I suppose it is just assumed that these forms of worship are so unBiblical, that don’t even warrant discussion.

Perhaps, to be fair, it is because Barna and Viola are mainly preaching to their own choir (except they don’t much favor choirs or worship leaders), or at least to low church Protestant churches in general. My concern in this post is less with the historical analysis, though there are some flaws in the argument and flies in the ointment there (e.g. Zwingli did not hold a purely memorial view of the Lord’s Supper—see the work of Dr. Steinmetz of Duke fame on this point), but with its theological underpinnings which are faulty in various ways.

My concern is especially with the supposed Biblical view of worship they assume, assert, and sometimes argue for. I realize that the positive constructive project, where they argue their positive case is coming in their subsequent book Reimagining Church, however there is more than enough here in this book to make my hair stand on end, so I will be responding here especially to pp. 74-83.

Let me ask at the outset– Is there anything wrong with small group meetings with lots of sharing—absolutely not, and God bless them. Is it worship? Well maybe in part when it gets around to focusing on God and not on talking to each other or exhorting each other or laying hands on each other. Mutual participation and open sharing is the model Barna and Viola are uplifting. A time together without an order of worship, without a liturgy, without a worship leader. What should we think of this notion?

Let’s start with a general point. If we want to base our theology of worship on a particular reading of 1 Cor. 11-14, as Barna and Viola seem largely to do, then the least we could do is get the analysis of the Pauline material right. The beginning of the description of bad and good worship actually happens in 1Cor. 8—and continues on through 1 Cor. 14. I do not have the time or the patience to work through all these chapters here— again one can read what is said in my Conflict and Community in Corinth.

Some general points need to be made. It is interesting to notice how Paul actually contrasts real pagan worship with Christian worship. Firstly, Paul is contrasting real ‘pagan worship’ with Christian worship, not what Barna and Viola call pagan Christianity in their book with what they see as true spiritual Christian worship. Secondly, Paul does not critique pagan worship because it involves purpose built buildings, nor because it involves worship led by priests, nor because it involves sacrifices, nor because there were fellowship meals involved of various sorts. None of those things come in for any criticism at all in 1 Corinthians, which is passing strange if Paul had problems with those aspects of truly pagan worship.

As I say, none of these factors come in for Paul ‘sturm und drang’ in his critique. What he critiques is the spiritual influence of false gods, which he calls ‘daimons’the only time he uses such language in his letters. He assumes that what is behind paganism is not nothing, not no spiritual forces or beings, but rather false gods who are in fact unclean spirits, or demons who can bewitch, bother and bewilder Christians. And so he wants his Christians to stay away from their deleterious spiritual influence. No more going to pagan feasts or worship in pagan temples. And no causing one’s brother or sister to stumble by forcing them to violate their conscience by eating meat once sacrificed to an idol, if they have scruples against it.

Especially telling is when Paul says “you cannot drink in the cup of demons and the cup of the Lord too. You cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” Paul assumes that both the pagan and the Christian meals are sacramental in character that a spiritual transaction of some kind happens in them, and that the influence of the former leads to spiritual pollution and danger, whereas the influence of the Christian meal leads to spiritual renewal, communion with God and union with Christ’s body. To partake of it in an unworthy manner can lead to spiritual illness and even physical death.

Notice at the beginning of 1 Cor. 10.1-5 how very sacramental the language is that Paul uses to describe the Red Sea crossing and manna in the wilderness miracle. He draws an analogy with Christian baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Why? Paul knows perfectly well that the Red Sea crossing was not really a baptism, nor the manna miracle not really a communion meal.

There are two reasons he does this: 1) because he wants to warn his Corinthian converts that just because they had partaken of the Christian sacraments, this did not provide them with ‘eternal security’ from judgment or for that matter a spiritual protection from all spiritual harm if they went on participating in real pagan worship (not to be confused with current high church or institutional church worship); 2) equally importantly he does this because Paul believes there really is something going on in Baptism or the Lord’s Supper of a spiritual and even miraculous nature. The analogy breaks down if one admits miracle in the Red Sea Crossing and the manna, and then suggests that the Christian rites involve nothing more than potent symbols or memorial signs.

But this brings me to a further point. Why exactly had Paul referred to the Lord’s Supper using the term ‘the Lord’s table’? The term here is not ‘meal’ in the Greek, but ‘table’—trapedz?s. Could it be that there was actually a table involved, a piece of liturgical furniture, or something turned into a special table, in early Christian worship, even in homes? Well yes, this is not only possible but likely. The Lord’s Supper was n
ot just a regular part of reclining and dining. It had its own table, and was a part of the regular Christian worship service in a home. This would be no surprise to a Gentile host who had his own altar, and indeed religious cabinet with the masks of his ancestors in it. My point is this– even in homes there would have been religious items, religious altars, religious furniture. There is no reason Christian might not also have had such things in their homes, rededicated to Christ for example. And so let us analyze for a minute what Paul tells us in 1Cor. 10-14.

Firstly Paul talks about an occasion when all the Christians in Corinth come together, and he affirms that the Lord’s Supper ought to be shared whenever all of them meet. I have no idea how many people this would involve, since Roman villas could be spacious, and a meeting could involve the courtyard, the triclinium or dining room, and so on. In the Roman villas I have been in, in Pompeii and elsewhere, whereas only 18-20 could get in the dining room, if the meeting involved several parts of the house it could involve up to 100 people especially in the courtyard. In other words don’t envision a small group Bible study necessarily.

In any case what Paul is trying to do is instill some order and organization into the otherwise chaotic Corinthian worship times—as is especially clear in 1 Cor. 14 where he tries to get them to take turns speaking, to listen when they should, and not to ask questions during the worship service. We actually have no evidence that all Christian worship services were like the one in Corinth, but even if they were, there was supposed to be an order to things—it was not supposed to be like a spontaneous Quaker or charismatic prayer meeting. Sorry but it just wasn’t. The spirit of prophets was in the control of prophets, as Paul says, and Paul as the apostle through this letter was interjecting major structure, including worship structure, into the chaos in Corinth.

And here we come to an important point— Christ is not the leader of the worship service. This is not said or suggested anywhere in the NT. Christ is the object of worship, the one to whom our worship is directed. The Holy Spirit does indeed prompt and inspire us to share and speak in various ways in worship where there is time and opportunity and need, but this is a different matter.

There is nothing wrong with charismatic sharing as long as the God of peace and order is honored in whatever way worship is done. The leaders of the worship service were then and are now, human beings whom God has anointed and appointed for such tasks, whether they be prophets or preachers, or teachers or song leaders. This is not only clear from a close reading of the OT. It is equally clear from a reading of the NT. Jesus stands up in his hometown synagogue reads the Scripture and preaches while others listen. Should we not follow the example of Jesus? Well of course we should. Paul stands up in the meeting of a synagogue or a meeting with the Ephesian Christians and gives a sermon or exhortation. Others listen. In lieu of that he sends letters to be read as the apostolic voice in worship. Should we not do likewise– well of course we should.

Worship is not the same thing as a Bible study or a spontaneous sing along at home or a reasonably spontaneous prayer meeting, and it never was intended to be, but it certainly does involve Scriptural sharing from some anointed leader of some sort.

And here is where I stress that Paul’s letters were meant to be read OUT LOUD as part of the worship. That would entail a very long monologue by one of Paul’s workers who read dramatically the whole thing to the congregation. In addition to that there would be prayers and prophecies as 1 Cor. 11 says. In addition to that there would be a meal, and whenever they all gathered, the Lord’s Supper as well. In addition to that, as Ephes. 5 says there would be psalms, which is to say liturgical singing of a rote text, and hymns, in this case probably Christological hymns like we find in Phil. 2.5-11, and spiritual songs, which may well be songs spontaneously prompted by the Spirit. Worship is intended to be theocentric, with the exception of when the Word of God is proclaimed to the people. It therefore involves interchange between God’s Word shared by someone or someones gifted and graced, anointed and appointed to do so, and the response of the congregation as God is worshipped by one and all.

One of the problems here is the fact that NT documents today keep getting treated as modern texts, when in fact they are oral texts. Some scholars, on the basis of the occasional reference to ‘readers’ in the NT have thought that this signaled that Christians were some of the first to self-consciously be trying to produce books, or even literature meant for reading. For example, sometimes Mark’s Gospel has been called the first Christian book, in large part based on the reference in Mk. 13.14 where we find the parenthetical remark, “let the reader understand”, on the assumption that the ‘reader’ in question is the audience. But let us examine this assumption for a moment. Both in Mk. 13.14 and in Rev. 1.3 the operative Greek word is ho anagin?sk?n a clear reference to a single and singular reader, who in that latter text is distinguished from the audience who are dubbed the hearers (plural!) of John’s rhetoric. As Mark Wilson recently suggested in a public lecture at Ephesus, this surely is likely to mean that the singular reader is in fact a lector of sorts, someone who will be reading John’s apocalypse out loud to various hearers. We know for a fact that John is addressing various churches in Asia Minor (see Rev. 2-3), so it is quite impossible to argue that the reference to ‘the reader’ singular in Rev. 1.3 refers to the audience. It must refer to the rhetor or lector who will orally deliver this discourse to the audience of hearers. I would suggest that we must draw the same conclusion about the parenthetical remark in Mk. 13.14, which in turn means that not even Mark’s Gospel should be viewed as a text, meant for private reading, much less the first real modern ‘text’ or ‘book’ Rather Mark is reminding the lector, who will be orally delivering the Gospel in some or several venues near to the time when this ‘abomination’ would be or was already arising that they needed to help the audience understand the nature of what was happening when the temple in Jerusalem was being destroyed. Oral texts often include such reminders for the ones delivering the discourse in question.


Look closely at how Frank Viola describes the service he calls true Biblical worship on pp. 78-79. What he is describing is an in home sharing group, not corporate or public worship. Why is it important that there be corporate or ‘public’ worship? For the very good reason that Christianity is an evangelistic and missional religion. What Frank is describing is an in-home nurture or discipleship meeting with some worship elements. I’m glad that this edifies all those present, and I am happy that there is plenty of sharing, but Biblical worship this is not, in the main.

I must assume that in fact Frank would agree that his home meetings happen at a particular time in a particular place, otherwise no one knows to come. In other words, there is a structure and setting and time deemed appropriate. This is a matter of ritual and order.

While I understand the complaint about things done by rote, it all depends on the spirit in which such things are done. If they are simply done mindlessly, repeating words without thinking about what one is saying or without focusing on God—well that’s not a good thing. But frankly I’ve seen far too many people who find joy in the recitation of the liturgy, and meaning, and are drawn closer to God by doing so. And there is nothing unBiblical about ritual. Try reading the psalms for example, which as Ephes. 5 makes clear Christians recited and sang.

Here’s an important point When one rules out pre-set liturgies and orders of worship, that in itself becomes a ritual by default if one does it over and over again that way. You can see this for example in what happened with the Shakers here in middle Kentucky. Though they lauded spontaneity, it became clear soon enough that they needed some order and so in their singing and dancing building they built little upstairs peepholes where community leaders could observe and make sure there was no lascivious or loose dancing or singing.

Worship, real Christian worship that comports with the Great Commission as well as Peter’s Pentecost sermon however is intend to be open for one and for all, and all should be able to come as they are. Of course, when God works, no one will stay as they are. Worship is in fact the ultimate goal of human life. Salvation is merely a means to the end of worship.

Notice the very clear critique by Paul of purely spontaneous sharing in Corinthian worship. He says that speaking in tongues without interpretation will lead the uninitiated (the idoites–the visitor) to react by saying this is chaotic madness, this is ecstasy without structure. Paul doesn’t want pure spontaneity even in Corinthian worship.

A few points are in order about things in the fine print in the second major chapter: 1) spiritual gifting doesn’t make a person a priest. Training in priestly tasks does, or in the NT offering of self or spiritual praise does. Nowhere is the priesthood of all believers linked to spiritual gifting in the NT; 2) Christ being the head of the body has nothing to do with who is leading a worship service. Worship is an activity of human beings prompted by the Spirit and directed towards God. Christ in worship is not the subject or director of worship, he is the object of worship. 3) all Christians are both laity, and gifted and called to do something for the Lord. This does mean that there is no laity, clergy distinction in the NT, but there is certainly a leader-follower distinction in the NT, and not all are called to be apostles, elders, deacons, etc.

Consider for a moment the heavenly vision of worship in Rev. 4, or say in Isaiah 6. Any evidence here of a sharing group where the focus is on each other? Nope. The focus is entirely on the one who is on the throne, before whom we cast down our crowns. Pure spontaneity can be just as stifling of genuine worship as long and lugubrious liturgy.

And categorical statements like “Let’s face it. The Protestant order of worship is largely unscriptural, impractical, and unspiritual.” (p. 77), is not only an uncharitable remark. It’s Biblically inaccurate.

An actual study of worship in the Bible would recognize that there is indeed both order and space in worship, both liturgy and creativity, both leading and following. When Paul describes worship in 1 Cor. 8-14 he is largely critiquing the lack of order and structure in the service there, not baptizing it and calling it good. 1 Corinthians is a problem solving letter, and when one takes the problematic model and makes that a template for modern Christian worship—that in itself becomes a problem.

At the end of Heb. 12.18-28 our author is reflecting on a theophany, in fact two theophanies the old one at Sinai, and the final one at Christ’s return. He remembers the patterns and rituals of Jewish worship involved at that earlier theophany, and then he says “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken then let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” The image of acceptable worship he had left in their minds is an image of worship that involves thousands of joyful angels and the church of the first born who worship with them, and he says “see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks” referring to God speaking to them in worship, and in this case God probably speaking through some leader– those who are particularly mentioned in Heb. 13.7 and 17 as worthy of remembrance and support.

The problem in Protestant worship is not the rituals or the pews or the pulpit or the preacher. The primary problem in worship is not that people often sit statically sitting staring at the heads of those in front of them, though that is a problem.

The primary problem is anthropocentric worship—looking at and to each other, when in fact in worship what all Christians are supposed to do is LOOK UP AND SEE THE GLORY OF THE LORD AND HIS HEAVENLY HOSTS, AND JOIN IN THE UNENDING SONGS, FOR AS THE BOOK OF REVELATION MAKES CLEAR—EVEN THE ANGELS HAVE A LITURGY, AND THEY SING IT EXUBERANTLY AND REGULARLY.

Small group gatherings are wonderful and can be very formative. But they are largely anthropocentric in character, they are largely about sharing with one another, and that frankly is mainly fellowship and koinonia and mutual upbuilding. It is the kind of thing that happened in Wesley’s society meetings and
the classes and bands which met during the week, but as Wesley said—it is no substitute for public and corporate worship, because one day when the Lord returns all the world will be required to worship, with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus is Lord.

What we are tuning up for is the final great theophany and its proper human response—worship. What we are not tuning up for in worship is simply more fellowship and Bible study and sharing with each other. What we are turning up for is turning our eyes on Jesus and looking full into his wonderful face, and all such earthly sharing which are “the things of this earth’ fades and becomes strangely dim in the light of his wonder and grace.

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